your net:// A beast that's running rampant

By Chris Barton

A mess it may be, but CHRIS BARTON says the Internet is on track to make all other media look primitive.

There are many arguments in our household about this thing called the Internet.

He says: It's the most significant technological development the world has ever seen - bigger than the printing press.

She says: The Net may be important, but it will never come close to the historical impact of the printed word. Print brought knowledge to the masses. The Net, well it's just an amorphous mess.

He says: If the printing press brought knowledge to the masses, then the Net brings masses to the knowledge. On the Net everyone is a potential publisher - not just of print, but also of radio, music, video, software and a whole lot more.

She says: Pah! Everyone jammed on transmit - a recipe for anarchy.

He says: Pah, yourself. It's true democracy in action - a place where everyone can have their say and then some.

The argument never gets resolved. In many ways she's right. The Net is a mess. You work too hard to get the information you want. For most, it's also terribly slow - waiting for the computer to start up and again while it dials your Internet provider.

Then there is the world wide wait as the Web pages wend their way down the telephone line to your screen.

But he's right, too. Once you get there, the Net does open up an enormous interactive world of communication, information and entertainment. It's also such an unexpected rich mix - sending and receiving e-mail worldwide in seconds, reading daily newspapers of any country you choose, online buying of your groceries at Woolworths, downloading free music. Not to mention the stuff that's just plain weird - like watching a Web camera showing someone's cat sleeping.

It was early 1994 when I first became a part of the amorphous mess. I wasn't instantly wowed by the online world but I do remember marvelling at how the black box modem thing made strange squawking noises. Sometimes, after an eternity of electronic gibberish followed by a triumphant "boing, boing," it would also connect.

To what? It was explained to me a year later by John Houlker, a father of the Internet in New Zealand. The Net was not just the world's largest data network. It was a "multi-faceted beast" - forever gobbling bandwidth.

He was describing his personal nightmare as manager of "NZ Gate" - the place where New Zealand was tethered by submarine telecommunications cables to the United States and where nearly all the telephone wires used by the Internet providers congregated. As gatekeeper, John's job was to make sure the Internet traffic got through.

The problem was the beast was always hungry. And the cables weren't coping.

The number of New Zealanders using the Internet rocketed from about 15,000 in 1993 to around 1.518 million with access to the Net today and some 635,000 regularly using it from home.

A multi-faceted beast gone rampant. No one knows what effect the global Net will have. But my guess, once it really gets going, is it will make the printing press, the telephone, and television look primitive.

What we do know is that this amorphous mess is unstoppable.

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